30 Years at the Movies, Part 4

30 Years at the Movies, Part 4

Posted by Sean Stangland on Sun, 02/08/2009 - 19:39

Directed by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron
Released July 18, 1986

I never saw "Aliens" on the big screen, and I consider that one of the great tragedies of my life. I can only imagine what it must have been like to watch this relentless, overwhelming movie on a fifty-foot-high screen with a packed house. My dad saw it twice in its opening weekend, which is rather unusual for him. (I've done that a whole bunch of times.) I don't know who my mom was talking to on the phone that second day, but I remember her half of the conversation: "No, Glenn's going to see 'Aliens' again tonight ... Yeah, I think he's in love with Sigourney Weaver. Or at least in lust."

And why not? Had moviegoers ever seen a woman of action like James Cameron's version of Ellen Ripley? Weaver's performance was impressive enough to earn her an Oscar nomination -- her first, and a rare nod to horror and sci-fi. (She lost, of course, to Marlee Matlin in "Children of a Lesser God," a film that everyone has since forgotten.) The film got six other nominations for its score and in the usual technical categories, and won a pair of statues for its visual and sound effects.

But the man who deserved most of the credit wasn't nominated for a single thing -- of course, James Cameron would win just about every conceivable Academy Award a decade later for "Titanic," but "Aliens" endures as his true masterpiece. (And no, I'm not forgetting the "Terminator" films.)

Hired to continue a franchise begun by different writers (Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett, David Giler and Walter Hill) and a world-class director (Ridley Scott), Cameron did something genius in its simplicity -- he merely remade the original.

"Aliens" is, structurally, the same film as its predecessor: A group of space travelers are ordered to land on a planet named LV-426 and discover that something has gone horribly wrong. They are picked off one by one by an alien menace, and Ripley emerges as the only one who can stop it. She begins a self-destruct sequence that presumably ends the threat, but wait -- there's an alien stowaway on the escape pod! So she blows it out of an airlock, and settles down for a hypersleep nap.

But, per the title, Cameron adds more aliens (lots more) and gives them a Queen, and makes our heroes a bunch of mouthy Marines instead of the first film's workaday space truckers. The result feels more like a World War II movie than a sci-fi adventure, and allows its many supporting characters to bring a lot of humor and personality to a movie that could have been a by-the-numbers bore. When I think of "Aliens," I don't immediately think of the action or the gore; I think of the wonderful dialogue spoken by its memorable characters. Bill Paxton is best of all as Pvt. Hudson, who never stops talking, even as he's being ripped apart.

Here's a cool sequence you can only see in the extended DVD
edition of "Aliens."

The first film's horror came from its sexual subtext: The facehugger orally rapes Kane (John Hurt), who dies during the explosive birth of the phallic chestburster. The death of Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) is cut together in such a way that rape could be implied, and the adult alien seems to be intrigued by Ripley in the final scene. (This sexual connection between Ripley and the beast is apparently consummated in the mostly terrible "Alien Resurrection.") The horror of Cameron's film depends mostly on its sheer intensity, but the theme of motherhood is clear. We learn in the extended DVD edition that Ripley had a daughter who died while she was drifting in hypersleep, and that makes her bond with Newt (Carrie Henn) stronger. When Ripley meets the Alien Queen, each female acts to protect her child(ren). Weaver's famous line at the end of the movie -- "Get away from her, you bitch!" -- is about as obvious and crude as it gets, but it works.

According to IMDB, "Aliens" was made for $18.5 million. If a movie of comparable size and vision were made today, it might cost ten times as much, and would replace many of its practical effects with unconvincing CGI. Every creature you see in "Aliens" was built by Stan Winston and his team of geniuses, and they all look incredible 23 years later. You can't say the same about "Alien 3" or "Alien Resurrection," whose digital beasties look terrible next to their own practical creations. The "Alien Vs. Predator" films, bad as they are, are at least thumbing their nose at CGI for the most part.

Why do so many films rely on CGI when they could build the real deal? Guillermo Del Toro delivered "Hellboy II" for $85 million, and that had dozens of real creatures in it and looked amazing. Only Peter Jackson and "Pirates of the Caribbean" have delivered humanoid CG characters that look photo-realistic, and the work done in 1993 for "Jurassic Park" still towers over most of the films it "made possible." (Watch "Van Helsing" or "Attack of the Clones," then look at "Jurassic Park." This is the best they could do, a decade later?)

But maybe Cameron, who gave us groundbreaking CG work in "The Abyss" and "T2," can make me a believer in December when his long-gestating project "Avatar" finally comes to theaters. I first heard of this 3D sci-fi epic in the early '90s, and Cameron wanted to make it shortly after "Titanic," but even that film's success couldn't get a studio to bite on its then-$400 million budget. If Cameron could make "The Abyss," "T2" and "True Lies" in the space of five years, imagine what he could do with 12 years of preparation. I think we're in for a treat on Dec. 18.

• • •

Previous entries in this series:
"The Fifth Element"
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"
"Pulp Fiction"

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